The Illinois special teams unit will look familiar next season with kicker James McCourt, punter Blake Hayes and long-snapper Ethan Tabel all returning. McCourt will be in his sixth season with the Illini, while Hayes and Tabel will play their fifth seasons.
There were high expectations for Illinois after signature wins and a trip to a bowl game during the 2019 campaign, but after going 2-6 this past season, the trio says it is ready to improve and right its wrongs.
“If the season went well and we all performed well, I would’ve been fine walking away knowing the team was in a better place now than when I first got here, but that wasn’t the case,” McCourt said. “It’s also another guaranteed year of football. Especially at my position, it’s never guaranteed in the next level. There’s only 32 jobs out there. The fact that I can go out there and play the game that I love one more time and prove myself one more time, that means the world to me and I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”
The unit also wants to experience the change that is taking place in the football program with head coach Bret Bielema. For Hayes, that was one of the reasons he thought the decision to return was an easy one.
“I really want to be part of the change and I really want to bring this culture that Coach [Bielema] is bringing in,” Hayes said. “When he spoke to us the day after Penn State, I was sold with what he was saying. He was emotional. He really spoke to me personally and got to know me and felt very welcomed, felt like he could take this team to where it needs to go. And also I feel really blessed to wear the orange and blue and represent the people who have played before me and represent my teammates as well. I wanted to do them a service one more time, so honestly it was quite an easy decision to come back.”
During their individual conversations, Bielema took the time to get to know them outside of football, which they said was appreciated. All three players were excited about the opportunity to come back together for another year.
For this group, their connection is not just on game days. With years of experience together, they have learned to communicate with each other both on and off the field.
“I think how you build that trust is through communication and we’ve all just become really close friends through it all,” McCourt said. “We’ve been through the highs and lows together. We’re a super strong group.”
While they all wanted to have another year on the field together and to be a part of the new era of Illinois football, they also had their individual reasons for coming back.
McCourt mentioned the chance of playing a game in Dublin, Ireland, being a factor, even with the possibility that the 2021 season opener against Nebraska will be canceled.
After conversations with family and coaches, Hayes came to the conclusion that he was not at the standard of the next level. He also expressed how important the education was to him and that earning another degree is a good decision for his future.
“Your time in the NFL is very short and even if you get an opportunity at the next level, it could be one year or it could be none,” Hayes said. “I think it’s very rare to have a long career where you make enough to be financially stable, so having that background you can fall back on a good education from a world-class university.”
Along with the announcement of his return, Tabel also shared that he tore his ACL in his right knee last month against Iowa and had surgery last week. While it wasn’t the main factor in his decision, he still feels like he has a lot left to prove.
After all they have been through together, Tabel believes they can leave on a better note.
The opportunity means more with McCourt and Hayes by his side.
“It means everything,” Tabel said. “We all came in at about the same time. I love those guys. They’re fantastic dudes. Like Court and Blake both said, we’ve become best friends from our experiences that we’ve shared together. We’ve faced highs and lows. To be able to run it back one more time and hopefully have our best season yet, that’s our goal. We want to have our best season yet. It’s really special. I’m looking forward to being able to do it.”